If you prefer your rice wrapped in grape leaves instead of seaweed, if you order spanakopita instead of quiche, if you occasionally enjoy pita chips and hummus instead of tortilla chips and salsa, if you know that gyro is pronounced ‘year-oh’, and if you prefer your food wrapped in a pita instead of a tortilla, then Opa! you’re not alone. The popularity of Mediterranean food in general and Greek food specifically is surging in the U.S., as hungry customers search for the next hot cuisine.

The reasons behind the current increased interest in this ancient cuisine are many, and some may be debatable. Probably the most consistently noted hypothesis is that the Greek/Mediterranean diet is perceived as healthy because of its focus on fresh ingredients, the extensive use of heart-healthy olive oil, and the widespread use of grains, beans, and nuts.

In the mid-1990’s, a Harvard-affiliated doctor presented the Mediterranean diet as beneficial because of its high levels of monounsaturated fat and dietary fibers along with its low levels of saturated fat. Studies have been conducted worldwide since then that have suggested that adhering to this diet can help prevent Type 2 diabetes, increase weight loss, reduce the risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease, and lower blood pressure among other health benefits.

Also bringing focus to all things Greek is the skyrocketing sales of Greek yogurt in recent years. Its thicker consistency and tangier, less sweet flavor has become a new obsession among some foodies, with frozen-treat chains such as Pinkberry, TCBY, and Ben & Jerry’s rolling out new soft-serve versions of Greek yogurt. Recent Nielsen data show that sales of Greek yogurt have jumped more than 100% in each of the past three years, while non-Greek sales have grown at a single digit rate.

Greek cuisine’s visibility has also been elevated by Cat Cora and Michael Symon on the Food Network’s wildly popular Iron Chef America – both Iron Chefs are of Greek origin and frequently feature that food in their inventive dishes during the competitions.

In the National Restaurant Association’s Chef Survey of What’s Hot: 2012, 43% of the chefs cited Mediterranean cuisine as a hot trend, ranking it 9th among Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors;  38% of the same chefs marked it a Perennial Favorite, suggesting that its flavors are here to stay for the foreseeable future. In the same survey, Greek yogurt was named a Hot Trend by 60% of the chefs.

Ever eager to capitalize on an emerging trend, savvy restaurateurs are joining the movement to provide customers with what they want. Among the chains that are on the forefront are Pita Pit, Daphne’s California Greek, Mr. Greek Restaurants, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, Roti Mediterranean Grill, Feta and Olives, and Little Greek. While some of these companies have been in operation for several decades, quietly going about their business of selling pita-wrapped goodness, others such as Garbanzo, Roti, and Little Greek are newly established entities that were developed specifically to take advantage of consumers’ growing interest in healthy options instead of burgers and fries.

I had the opportunity to talk recently with Nick Vojnovic, President of the Little Greek operating company, and the driving force behind its growth. In just the past year, the company has gone from four locations operated by its founder, Sigrid Bratic, to nine currently open and three more projected to open by the end of the year. Nick is a former president of Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, a Buffalo-wing concept developed in Brandon, FL, in the mid-1980s. When Beef’s was acquired a few years ago, Nick took a year off to research other opportunities. After looking at many options, a long-time friend in the franchise consulting business convinced him that Little Greek was poised for growth with the right leadership.

Nick noted that among his biggest challenges are cost containment and explaining the menu and its strange-sounding names to new customers. From a cost standpoint, quality ingredients don’t come cheap, and higher-end products such as lamb are essential to present a genuine Greek experience. To help off-set the higher costs of some ingredients, Nick and his team are doing more prep work in-house, including such things as breaking down large cuts of meat instead of buying it pre-butchered, baking the traditional Baklava pastry on-site, and making their own hummus instead of purchasing it pre-made from another source. To help customers get used to and understand the complexities of such classic Greek items as mousaka, spanakopita, dolmades, pastitsio, and other exotic dishes, the menu includes detailed descriptions (Baked Pastitsio – Macaroni, ground beef, topped with béchamel sauce). The restaurants also provide photographs of the items, along with a pronunciation guide.

If you’re a manufacturer or distributor who wants to be part of the action, turn to Chain Store Guide for your leads – the CSG database of Chain Restaurant Operators currently has contact information for nearly 120 companies that are operating restaurants with a Greek/Mediterranean menu. The database also has a large number of fro-yo companies that either are or will be offering their customers this new, tasty treat.

For more information about Chain Store Guide, please contact us.